Iran may be searching for an exit strategy in Syria. Tehran initially supported President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on the rebels since Syria is a frontline against the West and Israel. But Iran’s position on the conflict has evolved since fighting erupted in mid-2011. Tehran actually now has several incentives to support Syrian peace negotiations. Talks could prevent the spillover of violence into Iraq and Lebanon, both countries where Shiites have a strong political presence. Tehran might also be able to press for a national unity government that is not be hostile to Iran, while building up regional goodwill. The following is a rundown of the numbers game on Iran’s involvement in Syria since the crisis erupted in March 2011.
- Spring 2011 – Tehran issued steadfast support for President Bashar Assad.
- Summer 2011 – Iran showed the first public signs of doubts, including negotiations with the Syrian opposition.
- Fall 2011 to Winter 2012 – The conflict emerged as a proxy way. Iran demonstrated stalwart support for the Assad regime.
- Spring/Summer 2012 – Tehran publically supported multilateral negotiations mediated by the United Nations and Arab League
- Fall 2012 to present – Iran continued backing for Damascus while exploring other options and exit strategies.
• Contain damage and cut losses because the pre-March 2011 status quo cannot be restored in Syria
• Prevent the dissolution of Syria and spillover of conflict into Lebanon and Iraq
• Demonstrate Iran’s importance as a key regional actor
• Avoid further polarization and total transformation of conflict into a regional sectarian war between Sunnis and Shiites
• Facilitate the emergence of a national unity government in Damascus that is not hostile to Iran
• Free up resources to solve Iran’s own domestic issues and deal with foreign sanctions